Summary: In the so-called mainline churches, many members cling to the adage, "We've never done it that way before!" As the religious people in Jesus' time discovered, hanging on to the old will blind us to the new thing that God is doing in our midst.
Our lectionary passages this morning concern radical change, perhaps none more radical that Peter's vision in the 11th chapter of Acts. Most of us don't give much thought to what we eat and, if we do, our concern is more with calories than holiness. We don't consider food groups to be "clean" or "unclean," but Simon Peter did. In fact, what he put into his mouth was an integral sign of his faith, and it had been so since the Holiness Codes were written (see Lev. 20:25) For more than a 1000 years, Jews had been defined (in part) by what they ate, and so the new thing that Peter saw was mind-blowing! While it is still true that we honor God in the choices we make, we know that it is what's on the inside that makes us holy. On the other hand, God's new commandment- that we love one another as he has loved us- is also extremely radical. It is so radical in fact that it is yet to be achieved! Either one of these passages is rich for any preacher, but as I near retirement, I am increasingly aware of the new thing that God is doing or trying to do) in our midst, right here at SPPC. Therefore, the Scripture that undergirds my message today comes from the 43 chapter of Isaiah. It concerns the new thing that God is doing for a people who have lost most of their hope, and I think it is fits us well because we have lived through some hard times, and more importantly, because God is doing a new thing, right now, right here, at SPPC! In fact, He's doing several new things- things that will give us a future if we make them our own.
Someone asked me what I thought would happen to this church when I leave, and I said, "It's up to you." There is a little story about a student of philosophy who wanted to show his master that he was ready to graduate. So he approached him and told him that he had a small bird in his cupped hands. Master, he asked, Is this bird dead or alive? He was amused at his own cleverness because his teacher couldn't win. If his master said that the bird was alive, he'd crush it, and if he said it was dead, he would open his hands and let it go free. "Well," he asked, "Is this bird dead or alive," and his master replied, "The answer lies in your hands. It's up to you." Yes, whether SPPC dies or thrives is in your hands. It's up to you, and depends on whether you see and respond to the new thing God is trying to do in your midst.
If you continue to insist on Biblical preaching, if you continue to expand your emphasis on Bible studies, if you continue to put spiritual growth ahead of numerical growth (without sacrificing the latter), if you really welcome new members, if you find ways of empowering new members, if you personally invite or even take them to church events, if you make sure that new voices are heard, if you help every member find and use his or her spiritual gifts, if you help people see that stewardship is an act of love and not a campaign, an if you find aat least one thing that defines SPPC, I suspect that "the bird will live." However, if you reduce your emphasis on the Bible as the source of preaching and teaching, if you let visitors fend for themselves; if you insist that new members serve their time before they speak, if you put memories ahead of dreams, if you ask very little from one another, if you find that you are not even sure why you're coming to church, and if you distrust pastoral leadership, then I can't promise you a "rose garden."